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Research and the Riots: Politics and England’s 2011 Urban Uprisings

1 Comment 🕔22.May 2014

This article is part of our Enough! feature on Europe’s exploding social movements.


by Ben Trott

In early 2014, a London jury found that Mark Duggan was unarmed when he was shot twice and killed by a marksman from the city’s Metropolitan Police Service. Duggan’s death, in August 2011, had sparked four nights of rioting that spread from Tottenham in North London across the capital and later to towns and cities throughout England. Characterized by violent clashes with the police, large-scale looting, and arson, these urban uprisings were the most significant the country had seen for decades. Many were quick to brand the riots ‘apolitical’, as simply criminal, or as merely a kind of insurgent consumerism. Others however, including a number of critical scholars, offered explicitly political readings of the events. In what follows, I provide a brief sketch of three such readings, before posing a set of questions for future research, including in terms of the riots’ relationship to recent protests in Europe and beyond.[1]


I. The riots’ political context

The first mode of political reading involves, quite simply, exploring the riots’ political context as well as the economic, social, and cultural reality this was caught up with. The preceding decades had not only seen a radical redistribution of economic wealth and political power through a transformation of the market, regulation, and the state, but it had also seen a transformation of society and even of subjectivity itself. Neo-liberalism, or ‘Thatcherism’, had eroded social solidarity along with social services and security. It was a radical, transformatory project, underpinned by a previously unseen emphasis on the anti-collectivist and anti-statist components of conservative philosophy. A new, populist ‘common sense’ was formed – in the manner Antonio Gramsci had used this term – venerating a number of widely held tenets, instincts, and desires: patriotism, the family, and, above all, self-sufficiency.[2] It was this, in large part, that meant workers in Britain were able to be so successfully transformed into what Michel Foucault described as ‘abilities-machines’, a kind of ‘human capital’ – entrepreneurs of themselves, atomized, self-sufficient, rational, competitive, and self-interested.[3] Economics was Thatcherism’s method, but the objective was “to change the heart and soul.”[4]

Like Keynesianism, neo-liberalism was itself marked by a kind of ‘deal’; a trade-off between generalized social and economic precarity, on the one hand, and access to cheap credit and commodities, as well as the promise of prosperity and social mobility, on the other.[5] The political context of the riots, however, was marked by the breakdown of this deal, albeit in a situation that remained saturated through and through by neo-liberal ideology and that was composed of thoroughly neo-liberalized subjects. “The depth of the neoliberal revolution that Britain had undergone … was conveyed above all,” Paul Gilroy noted, “by the way that the new norms specified by generalized individuation and privatization were able to reframe the disorders as a brisk sequence of criminal events and transgressions that could be intelligible only when seen on the scale of personal conduct.”[6]


Burnt Party Superstore on Lavendar Hill, Clapham, 2011.

Inequality, unemployment, social immobility

In his comment on the riots, Owen Hatherley noted that few of the major English cities in which they occurred are segregated along ethnic, racial, and class lines in the way cities like Paris or even Edinburgh are.[7] Yet they remain traversed by similar social hierarchies. According to a 2011 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “[i]ncome inequality among working-age persons has risen faster in the United Kingdom than in any other OECD country since 1975” and “is now well above the OECD average.” As top income shares have risen, “the top marginal income tax rate saw a marked decline.” Taxes and transfers have become less redistributive, as have welfare benefits, whose amounts have declined at the same time as a low-wage sector has expanded.[8]

The most substantial empirical enquiry into the events, Reading the Riots, carried out by the Guardian and the London School of Economics (LSE), noted “[e]vidence from several sources suggests rioters were generally poorer than the country at large … Analysis of more than 1,000 court records … suggests 59% of rioters came from the most deprived 20% of areas in the UK.”[9] Of the 270 participants in the riots who agreed to be interviewed for the Guardian/LSE project, almost 30 per cent were aged 10–17 and 49 percent were between 18 and 24 years old, with data provided to the project by the Ministry of Justice, suggesting this offered a relatively accurate reflection of those who had taken part in the riots.[10] Unemployment figures in the United Kingdom (UK) are at their highest among this latter 18–24 age group, having risen steeply since the turn of the century. It has coincided with a rise in long-term unemployment for periods greater than both 12 and 24 months, and unemployment for periods of at least one year has risen among 16 and 17 year olds, too.[11] Students made up almost half of those interviewed by Reading the Riots, but 59 percent of those who were not students at the time were unemployed.[12]


Racialized policing

Policing represents one of the areas in which social hierarchy remains at its clearest, and the Metropolitan Police have been described as ‘institutionally racist’ even by their own Black Police Association.[13] At the time of the riots, people from ethnic minorities made up 64 percent of all those stopped and searched by officers (according to data supplied by 24 of the 40 police forces in England), with the British Transport Police “31 times more likely to search black people than white people.”[14] Some 85 percent of those interviewed by the Guardian/LSE stated that policing was an important or very important reason for the riots, with police often seen as “a collective law unto themselves.”[15]

Crucial for comprehending the immediate reaction of local residents to the shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black Briton from Tottenham, was the history of deaths of black people during police operations in this area, including Cynthia Jarrett in 1985, Joy Gardiner in 1993, and Roger Sylvester in 1999. None of these well-known cases led to the conviction of officers involved and, in 2010, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) revealed that, over the preceding 10 years, there had been 333 deaths in police custody. No successful convictions have followed in any of these cases either.[16] INQUEST, a charity focused on deaths in custody, explains that “a disproportionate number of those who die in all forms of detention or following contact with the police following the use of force or serious neglect are from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.”[17]


Political economic crisis

Decades of neo-liberalization, social fragmentation, and isolation, as well as the perpetuation or exacerbation of social hierarchies and of racialized policing, coincided with an economic crisis as well as a significant crisis of political authority; not simply a conjunctural crisis, of the kind that can regularly be expected and fairly easily corrected, but – to use another of Gramsci’s terms – something close to an organic crisis.[18] It was, among other factors, the breakdown of the neo-liberal deal described above that meant those social groups and forces that had maintained a hegemony in neo-liberalism’s heyday could no longer be seen as representing the general (as opposed to very particular) interests of society.

One of Gramsci’s key observations about organic crises – although he is far from alone in making such a point – is that moments of breakdown open space and, even when there is no sign of a new hegemonic project, there is often a passing of portions of the population “from a state of political passivity to a certain activity.”[19] This is surely one of the key phenomena witnessed in the UK and beyond in the period surrounding the riots, from 2010 through to the present, with 2011 a particularly tumultuous year.

The most significant student protests in the UK for a generation erupted toward the end of 2010, and included frequent clashes with the police. They were triggered by significant hikes in university tuition fees and the elimination of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a small weekly grant paid to 16–19-year-old students from poorer households. At least 30 university campuses saw occupations and, during one large demonstration, the headquarters of the Conservative Party was ransacked. Soon after, new activist groups emerged, like UK Uncut, protesting against both austerity and tax loopholes exploited by major companies and wealthy individuals. The year 2011 also saw some of the UK’s largest public-sector strikes in decades over proposed pension reforms. Elsewhere, popular movements, uprisings, and revolutions erupted around the world: from the ‘Arab Spring’, over the Spain’s indignados, and Israel’s social justice protests, through to Occupy.

Any serious political reading of the riots, then, is inextricable from a reading of this political context. This was – and largely remains – one of growing inequality; the breakdown in social solidarity; individuation; the collapse of the neo-liberal deal; an economic crisis marked by severe austerity measures, rising unemployment, and few perceived opportunities for social mobility; a background of social and racialized hierarchy and a history of disproportionally black deaths at the hands of the police, as well as a widespread perception of institutional racism; a crisis of political authority, and a multitude of movements demanding (albeit often cryptically) not only a radical transformation of the economy but also of political structures and of dominant forms of democracy.


II. The riots as an object of politics

The second sense in which the riots can be read politically is in terms of the way they became an object of politics; the ways that rioters and, significantly, the social networks and contexts they were embedded within, were subjected to discursive strategies, technologies of power, and legislative mechanisms.

For many, as Rodrigo Nunes observed, the rioters represented a situation “in which the paternal superego function has gone missing, turning individuals into menacing walking ids.” A key discursive response to the riots, then, as already noted, involved casting them as apolitical self-interested criminality, and marking the rioters as failed self-entrepreneurs, lacking the self-sufficiency or the personal ethos to succeed as one of Thatcher’s children. Sarah Lamble has noted that both mainstream and social media played a role in constructing ‘truth narratives’ around the riots, with racialized, gendered, and class-based imagery used in ways that “naturalized the punitive state responses that followed,” justifying “its … disciplinary violence.”[20] In terms of physical policing, alone in London on August 9 (the fourth and final night of the riots), 16,000 police were mobilized.[21] Across the country, over 3,000 arrests were made, with more than 2,000 charged by November 2011, according to the Metropolitan Police, who claimed there was “in excess of 150,000 hours of CCTV to be viewed in relation to [riot related] criminal offences.”[22] Police deployment of plastic bullets was authorized, although they were ultimately not used, and the Prime Minister prominently announced that a water canon would henceforth be available with 24 hours notice.[23]

The relative severity of sentences handed down to those involved in the riots was perhaps the aspect of the police and judiciary’s response that garnered most attention. There was a 6-month prison sentence for stealing water, 16 months for one lick of stolen ice cream, and 4 years for inciting disorder via Facebook – unsuccessfully![24] In an interview I conducted with Paul Lewis, who helped lead the Reading the Riots project, he noted that sentences were, on average, “three times more severe than for the same crime … committed outside a riot.”

One of the lesser-noted aspects of punishment, however, was the significant extent to which it was collectivized.[25] Not only were the riots considered an ‘aggravating feature’ of any offense, with individuals subjected to more severe punishment on the basis of others’ simultaneous actions, but entire households were clearly impacted by what Lamble describes as “aggressive dawn raids, violently breaking down doors of suspected looters’ homes,” with often only low-value goods retrieved in operations that are said to have “primarily targeted low-income housing estates.”[26] Nowhere was collective punishment clearer, though, than in a number of cases where entire households were issued notices of eviction from social housing after just one resident was charged with riot-related offenses.[27]

The scale of the policing operation launched in response to the riots, the juridical response, and the collective nature of punishment, were in many ways distinct – and any political reading of these phenomena would need to explore the discursive strategies they were caught up with, including in terms of the racialized and class-based imagery Lamble describes. Nevertheless, these responses correspond with at least two general trends within British policing (and among the judiciary), one medium term and the other more recent. The former involves the tendency for policing to focus not simply on individuals and individual bodies that might have transgressed, but crowds and collectivities as a whole. While the video footage of a bystander being struck (fatally, it turned out) by a police officer at the 2009 G20 protests in London caused widespread controversy, it will unlikely have surprised many who have taken part in public protest in Britain in recent decades.[28] The use of force against the edges of a crowd in order to corral it in a certain direction – the presumed intention of the officers involved – has certainly long been common. A clearer example still of collective disciplining and punishment, however, involves the use of the so-called ‘kettle’ to surround and detain demonstrators (and those in their proximity) within police cordons. Its first recorded use was during a May Day demonstration in London in 2001 and the kettle has since been used against G20 protesters, student protesters, Occupy activists, and others.[29]

The second similarity between the police, judiciary, and state’s response to the riots and more general trends lies in the increasing severity of sentences for certain offenses, since the start of the crisis and the rise in mass protest that has coincided with it. One student, for instance, was sentenced to 12 months after having thrown two sticks, said to have hit nobody, during a protest.[30] Another student, who suffered serious brain injury after being struck by a police truncheon at protests against the rise in tuition fees, was himself subjected to the charge of Violent Disorder (which carries a lengthy prison sentence). A court cleared him of the charge. An Australian resident in the UK who, in 2012, disrupted the annual Thames boat race between Oxford and Cambridge universities, in protest of the elitism it represented, was not only sentenced to six months in prison but was then ordered to leave the country by the Home Office (a decision later overturned by the courts).[31]

This second element at stake in a political reading of the riots – exploring how they became the object of politics, policy, and power – entails attention, then, to both what was very particular about this reaction (a result, in part, of discourses that relied on and reproduced various social hierarchies) and what it reveals more generally about the state’s response to disquiet and popular protest in the crisis.


III. The riots and political subjectivity

The third, final, and by far the most contested manner in which the riots can be read politically is from the perspective of political subjectivity. Interrogating the degree to which the rioters might constitute political subjects, as I have noted elsewhere, of course means asking what would be at stake in ascribing such a status, or indeed in denying it. What degree, or what type, of shared consciousness, rationality, ethics, or morality does political subjectivity necessarily imply? Certainly the aforementioned and widespread reaction from across the political spectrum was to (largely) dismiss any subjective dimension to the riots whatsoever, limiting attempts at explanation to purely objective factors (along the lines discussed in Part I). They were supposed to represent the incoherent lashing out of thoroughly neo-liberalized, isolated individuals with little capacity (or sense of a capacity) to shape the social reality they inhabited. Indeed, even when objective explanations were provided by the rioters themselves – that they were a response, for instance, to impoverishment, social abandonment, a lack of opportunity or of social mobility, or a reaction to vindictive policing – they tended to be dismissed as excuses for delinquency and anti-social behavior couched in the language of liberal sociology; appeals to a latter day Officer Krupkee that, “you gotta understand / it’s just our bringin’ up-ke / that gets us out of hand.”[32] Even the subjective moment entailed in offering an objective explanation was refuted, in other words.

A number of articles have challenged this narrative and offered an alternative interpretation. David Harvie and Keir Milburn, for instance, insisted that the riots conveyed real information revealing a certain common rationality, an at least tentatively shared ethics and, crucially, some sort of a ‘moral economy’ in the sense E. P. Thompson had famously used this term to describe the defense of ‘customary entitlements’ in the English ‘bread riots’ of the 1700s–1800s.[33] While these latter uprisings occurred during the messy transition from a feudal to a capitalist society, they noted, the 2011 riots took place amidst the breakdown of the neo-liberal deal, what I have described as the onset of an organic crisis of political authority, and the emergence of an increasingly uncertain future.

Thompson, as the authors noted, showed that riots tended to break out when “the value practices associated with a nascent market economy repeatedly clashed with those associated with a preexisting moral economy.”[34] The cause of uprisings and direct action was not only deprivation (which was certainly very real), but also “outrage at these [new] moral assumptions.”[35] Their goal was often to, firstly, insist goods like bread be sold at a ‘moral’ or ‘customary’ price and, secondly, serve as a form of punishment or revenge for having threatened livelihoods.[36] Harvie and Milburn suggested a similar logic could be found amidst England’s twenty-first-century crowds. While access to cheap credit had been steeply curtailed (coinciding with a rise in long-term unemployment and cuts to forms of social welfare like the EMA), ‘customary entitlements’ remained. They observed that “real luxury items – that is,… goods… customarily purchased by rich people,” like Rolex watches, were looted, but most of what was taken were ‘habitual luxuries’, goods people felt entitled to own “if they made themselves available for work or were willing to indebt themselves.” They noted a considerable degree of “community consensus in support of rioters and looters” and again, while “small, independent retailers were looted,” larger ones, perceived as “predatory on the community,” were far more frequent targets for revenge and/or re-appropriation.[37]

Thompson thought the existence of a moral economy in such cases “cannot be described as ‘political’ in any advanced sense, nevertheless it cannot be described as unpolitical either, since it supposed definite, and passionately held, notions of the common weal.”[38] Here, Harvie and Milburn note, Thompson’s account not only diverged from many mainstream academic ones, but also arguments made by several of his comrades within the Communist Party Historians Group, like Eric Hobsbawm, who had tended to stress the ‘pre-political’ nature of many forms of collective action erupting outside the organized labor movement.[39]

In some ways, the manner that Tompson’s account differed from that of Hobsbawm and others is echoed in Nunes’ critique of a number of contemporary critical theorists, like Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, who had variously insisted that “the lack of a distinct subjective affirmation” prohibited the identification of any emergent revolutionary, political or even pre-political subjectivity among England’s rioters. He suggested that rather than flattening out “the different dimensions of rational decision and subjectivation that are always present” in moments of unrest to “an all-or-nothing analytical grid – revolutionary subject or bust!”, we might better ask “whether any collective learning has taken or can take place – and what is required for it to serve as the material for (further) political subjectivation.”


Future research and the riots

The identification of a tentative moral economy at work within the riots should give us pause before denying any trace of political subjectivity, commonly held political project, or sense of shared political values. This remains the case even if we are also suitably cautious about declaring a ‘properly political subjectivity’; which would itself certainly require fuller definition. (Researchers, activists and political actors should also thoroughly reject any fatuous suggestion that an interest in the question of political subjectivity here means denying the negative impact the riots often had on (frequently poor) neighborhoods, the sense of alienation they sometimes fed into, and, as Gilroy noted, the lack of progressive reforms such outbreaks seem able to achieve today.)[40]

Among those interviewed for the Reading the Riots project, Lewis noted, predictions of similar uprisings in the near future were widespread – by police and rioters alike.[41] Indeed, the events of 2011 were themselves similar in some important senses to the riots that spread across France in 2005, and parallels have also been drawn with those that subsequently occurred in Sweden in 2013. Yet among those researching riots, the question of political subjectivation remains relatively under-explored. One of the clearest issues at stake here – and which must surely be taken up by future research – is whether, in any sense, such uprisings might have a role to play within a common project of opposition, organization, education, and constitution; and if so, what role? Again, this is less about the political efficacy of the riots themselves (which appears marginal) and more about any function they might play in political subjectivation. In other words, what subsequent role might political subjects formed through such uprisings have, not only in transforming their own objective conditions, but in creating an emancipatory exit from the impasse created by the breakdown in the neo-liberal deal? What precise factors might inhibit subjectivation or self-subjectivation in such instances? Can a greater degree, or a very different quality, of political subjectivation be found among the various other movements and struggles that have erupted from within the current conjuncture of crisis, from the Arab Spring to Occupy? If so, what might define such subjects and, crucially, what might have enabled political subjectivation to occur in these instances but was (perhaps) missing in the riots? Or has the degree to which individuation occurred throughout the neo-liberal era in fact restricted the capacity for political subjectivation across the board, inhibiting the formation of collective or common projects and identities?

This final set of questions implies another; namely, what is the (possible) relationship between those uprisings founded primarily on negation, negativity, and, at times, perhaps even a certain nihilism – like the French, English, and Swedish riots – and those movements that are largely based on affirmation, prefiguration, and constitution, such as the Spanish indignados and Occupy? Does this intuitive interpretation even stand up to further interrogation? If it does – and if forms of political subjectivity are found to be produced within these various (negative) uprisings and (affirmative) movements – are they irreconcilable? Might some type of assemblage be able to emerge through a combination of these negative and affirmative components? With which effects? And what limits?


Ben Trott is currently Associate Lecturer in Political Science at the Freie Universität Berlin’s John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies. He edited a symposium of political readings of England’s 2011 riots for the Summer 2013 issue of South Atlantic Quarterly (Vol. 112, No. 3).

This article is part of our Enough! feature on Europe’s exploding social movements.

[1] Throughout this piece, I draw extensively on four articles and an interview published in a symposium I edited, ‘Rebellious Subjects: The Politics of England’s 2011 Riots’ for South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (Summer 2013). The three political readings of the urban uprisings I set out draws on an account I first offered in my introduction to that symposium.
[2] Stuart Hall’s January 1979 article, “The Great Moving Right Show,” published in Marxism Today, is widely attributed as having first defined ‘Thatcherism’, partly in the sense it is described here.
[3] Michael Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978­1979, trans. Graham Burchell (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 215–37.
[5] On the neo-liberal deal, see Turbulence, “Life in Limbo?,” Turbulence: Ideas for Movement 5 (2009), esp. p. 3, <>.
[6] Paul Gilroy, “1981 and 2011: From Social Democratic to Neoliberal Rioting,” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (Summer 2013), 555.
[7] Owen Hatherley, “Look at England’s Urban Spaces: The Riots were Inevitable,” <>.
[8] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising (2001): 1–2, <>.
[9] Paul Lewis et al., Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s Summer of Disorder (London: Guardian/London School of Economics): 14, <>.
[10] Lewis et al., Reading the Riots, 13.
[12] Lewis et al., Reading the Riots, 4.
[14] <>. The BBC article takes its data from the European and Human Rights Commission’s briefing paper 5, Race Disproportionality in Stops and Searches under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, <>. It refers to the 2010–2011 period.
[15] Lewis et al., Reading the Riots, 18.
[17] INQUEST’s report examined deaths of prisoners, immigration detainees, and detained patients, as well as those in police custody. <>.
[18] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wisehart, 1971): 210.
[19] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 210.
[20] For more on the use of such imagery, see Sarah Lamble, “The Quiet Dangers of Civilized Rage: Surveying the Punitive Aftermath of England’s 2011 Riots,” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (Summer 2013), esp. p. 578.
[25] Lamble was among those who pointed toward such collective punishment.
[26] Lamble, “Quiet Dangers of Civilized Rage,” 579.
[27] Lamble “Quiet Dangers of Civilized Rage,” 580–81. Lamble notes that while these evictions were overturned by courts, in May 2012 the government announced plans to enable such occurrences in the future.
[28] See the video here: <>.
[29] On the use of the kettle in the UK, see <>.
[32] London Mayor Boris Johnson complained that there was “too much sociological explanation and not enough condemnation;” see <>. Žižek (2012) refers on p. 58 to the supposed cynicism with which “we can easily imagine a protester who, having been caught looting and burning and pressed for the reasons for his violence, will suddenly start to talk like a social worker, sociologist or social psychologist.” He refers to precisely this song, “Gee, Officer Krupkee” (written by Stephen Sondheim), and scene from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, 58–9.
[33] David Harvie and Keir Milburn, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Twenty-First Century,” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 560. See also E. P. Thompson “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present 50, no. 1 (February 1971): 76–136.
[34] Harvie and Milburn, “Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Twenty-First Century,” 561–62.
[35] Thompson,”Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” 79 (also cited in Harvie and Milburn, 562).
[36] Thompson, 113.
[37] Harvie and Milburn, 563–65.
[38] Thompson, 79.
[39] Harvie and Milburn, 561.
[40] See Gilroy, “From Social Democratic to Neoliberal Rioting,” 553.
[41] Lewis et al., Reading the Riots, 549.



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